Scarlet Street (1945) and artist John Decker

I’ve just finally got round to seeing the  film noir classic Scarlet Street, directed by Fritz Lang – one of the many greats I had somehow managed to miss up to now. I’m not going to write a full review, but will be going off at a tangent about the artist whose work is featured in the film, John Decker. However, on the film itself, I will briefly say that I was struck by the darkness and feeling of menace building up all the way through, and especially by the haunting  final scenes, which are justly the most famous. Many copies of the movie around on the web and on budget DVDs are bad public domain prints, but the picture and sound are much better on the remastered version issued by Kino.

Edward G Robinson is brilliant in the lead role  as Chris Cross (great name, suggesting his conflicted nature) a meek bank cashier who is a frustrated artist. He has to create his masterpieces in a tiny bathroom, which is the only space he is allowed by his wife, Adele (Rosalind Ivan) – a character who I found something of a cardboard cutout.

John Decker's portrait of Kitty March, Joan Bennett's character, featured in Scarlet Street

Longing to escape from his miserable existence, he falls for Kitty March (Joan Bennett), who is probably a prostitute, though this is hinted rather than stated, controlled by her abusive boyfriend Johnny (Dan Duryea). Kitty wrongly jumps to the conclusion that Chris is rich, and sets out trying to milk him for money. Through a series of unlikely plot twists, she becomes celebrated as the supposed creator of Chris’ paintings, while he remains an unknown. This is a grey, sleazy world where everyone is on the make and none of the characters is really sympathetic – Chris is more likeable than the others, mainly because he is played by Robinson who always has a lot of charisma, but even he is prepared to steal from his bosses in the hope of buying Kitty’s sexual favours. And a scene where he is chopping meat for his wife makes it clear how much violence is simmering below that quiet surface.

Another of Decker's paintings featured in the movie

Watching the movie, I was struck by the pictures which Robinson’s character creates, and especially by the one of Kitty which he passes off as her self-portrait – the eyes have a haunted expression and the painting really brings out  a darker side of the character, something she is trying to keep hidden. I really wanted to find copies of the originals of these paintings online and see how they looked in colour, but have so far drawn a blank.

In any case, I wondered who really created these works, and was interested to find out that it was Hollywood artist John Decker, whose own life is surrounded in lurid legend and sounds like the stuff of  film noir – he was born in Germany and moved to Britain but was interned as an enemy alien during the First World War, then travelled to America where he worked as a cartoonist and then moved to Hollywood as a portrait painter. He  became one of the controversial hellraising Bundy Drive Boys, and was a close friend of great actor John Barrymore. He is said to have forged a Rembrandt although there doesn’t seem to be any definite evidence on this either way.  There is an expensive biography by Stephen Jordan, Bohemian Rogue: The Life of Hollywood Artist John Decker, but I’m not clear from the details on Amazon whether this includes paintings or is mainly just tales of drunken exploits.

John Decker's portrait of Anthony Quinn

I have had permission to copy a photo of a painting by Decker of Anthony Quinn, which was  posted on Flickr, by Devpow.  I also wanted to include another beautiful painting of John Barrymore by Decker, which I came across on Flickr, in this posting, but  haven’t as yet had any reply to my request to use it, so I’m linking to it instead – I don’t know if it is the picture of Barrymore as Hamlet which  Tallulah Bankhead is said to have bought.

I’m also linking to a painting of Errol Flynn by Decker. This one strikes me as quite similar in mood to the Kitty March painting. And here’s a link to more examples of his work, not celebrity portraits, at the AskArt website.
Oops – just editing to say I had meant to include links to two good reviews of Scarlet Street,   at 24 Frames and Goodfella’s blogs.
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17 thoughts on “Scarlet Street (1945) and artist John Decker

  1. Colin

    A wonderful movie, as noir as it gets. BTW, while the Kino DVD is quite good there’s a UK edition from Odeon that’s even better.

    Reply
  2. John Greco

    Judy, this is a fascinating essay. I am not familiar with Decker except thru his SCARLET STREET works. The Barrymore portrait is wonderful, I only wish the book were cheaper, his life seems to have been wild.

    Reply
  3. Judy Post author

    Thanks John, yes, wild seems to be the word. I’m glad you like that Barrymore portrait – it would be great to see the original painting. I had meant to link to your review of ‘Scarlet Street’ and Dave’s, but finished this write-up in a hurry and forgot to do so – will edit it and add the links in now!

    Reply
  4. Sam Juliano

    Well Judy, the present in-print Region 2 of SCARLET STREET is the version to have, as the print is pristine. In fact I just watched this film several weeks ago during Dave’s noir countdown (as I wanted to give this exeedingly “dark” film another viewing. The links to Decker’s paintings are amazing, and it’s terrific that you found his work in the classic noir as an impetus to seek out further works of art he created. This is a great idea!!!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks very much, Sam. Glad you liked the links to Decker’s paintings – I especially like the one of Barrymore, which somehow seems to get the essence of him as an actor.

    1. Judy Post author

      Thank you in return, Irie, and thanks for linking your blog to mine – I will link back right away and will be popping by to read your postings.

  5. Pingback: Monday Morning Diary (June 7) « Wonders in the Dark

  6. CagneyFan

    What a wonderful review, Judy. I love how you approached the movie through the artwork; this is perfect b/c the art played such a major role in the movie. Your approach made for an excellent piece. I much enjoyed reading it. Sorry I’m so late to the party.

    I postponed watching this movie for a long while, then finally broke down and last year or the previous one checked out the Kino DVD from our local library. I’m glad I did. Now I’m trying to get up enough steam to watch WOMAN IN THE WINDOW.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thank you very much, CagneyFan – glad you also liked this film. I’d like to see ‘Woman in the Window’ too. I often find noirs hard to follow, but would like to see more of the famous ones which I haven’t caught up with up to now.

  7. Lamar

    I was looking for info on Decker after seeing “Scarlet Street” a few years ago and didn’t find much at the time. Today at my local library I picked up a book called “Hollywood’s Hellfire Club: The Misadventures of John Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn and ‘The Bundy Drive Boys’” by Gregory William Mank and it has quite a bit about the life & death of Mr. Decker and many b&w pics of his paintings. Book is from 2007. The Barrymore pic on Flickr is JB as Hamlet per the book-which I’ve only skimmed at this point. Thanks for your very interesting piece.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thank you very much for confirming the picture is Barrymore as Hamlet – that is good to know. Also thanks for details of the ‘Hollywood’s Hellfire Club’ book, which sounds very interesting – especially as it includes a lot of the paintings.

      I’m now wondering if Decker also did the striking painting of Ida Lupino laughing wildly which features in another movie I’ve just seen, ‘The Light That Failed’ (1939) – however I haven’t been able to find any information about this, possibly because the movie isn’t on DVD and isn’t so well-known. If you spot the Lupino painting in the book, I’d be interested to know! Thanks again.

    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks very much for this, Lamar – I saw that movie fairly recently, but hadn’t realised the painting created by Humphrey Bogart’s character in the film was a Decker. An interesting movie, with Bogie rather miscast, I’d say, but it was a must for me as a fan of both him and Stanwyck.

  8. Larry

    Great film just watched on TCM 1st time in years and was fascinated by art work
    so decided to look it up. Thanks so much for posting info.

    Reply
  9. Jim

    I would love to know if the painting of KITTY by Decker still exists and who may own it.
    I’d also love to see a color picture of it.

    Reply

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